Monday, February 25, 2013

Accessing the Mohawk Mercury

Portion of an advertisement for dry goods at Charles Martin's store in the Mohawk Mercury, February 9, 1795.  Grems-Doolittle Library Collections. 

This blog entry is written by volunteer Robert J. Jones. 

The Mohawk Mercury was a weekly newspaper published in Schenectady during the last decade of the 18th century.  In the Historical Society’s collection, we have microfilm of the paper between February 9, 1795 and March 13, 1798.  Published originally by Abraham Brockaw and Cornelius Wyckoff, Wyckoff became the sole publisher in September of 1795 according to a notice of the dissolution of their business partnership printed in the newspaper.  After this notice, no further mention is made of Brockaw, and he fades into history from the pages of his former paper.  Wyckoff, on the other hand, continues his business of selling books and doing print jobs aside from the newspaper itself.  He becomes active in various religious groups and uses his paper to promote books and publications of a religious nature.  According to an August 22, 1954 newspaper clipping from the Union-Star newspaper that we have in the library, a certain John L. Stevenson bought the paper. It is unclear if Stevenson continued printing the Mercury, but in 1799 he was publishing a newspaper under the name Schenectady Gazette (no relation to the present-day Schenectady newspaper), so it’s possible that he simply changed the name of the original publication.  In 1802 Stevenson changed the name of the Gazette to the Western Spectator and Schenectady Advertiser.  Finally in 1807, he discontinued publication. 

Published every Tuesday with essentially the same format in all the issues for which we have examples, the Mohawk Mercury was never more than four pages long; the first two pages were reserved mostly for national and international news, with some state information.  Pages three and four were almost exclusively local news and notices, generally in the form of business ads.  While the first two pages are interesting in their own right for a glimpse into the important matters of post-Revolutionary America, the real treasure of the publication for researchers of local history are the second two pages.  Given the ads and notices published, the Mohawk Mercury reads like a Who’s-Who of 1790’s Schenectady.  In total, some 1,439 individual names are printed on its pages.  Scanning the list of surnames gives an immediate impression of the ethnic make-up of the city at that time.  Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of names are ones we closely associate with old Schenectady: Van Antwerp, Veeder and Vedder, Van Eps, and Vrooman just to stick to the V’s.  Most of the names are of course Dutch, but names from other backgrounds are also present such as German, Welsh, Slavic (probably Polish), English, French and Scottish.

A few of those indexed in the paper have no last names.  At least four slaves, Jacob, Jap, Bawn and Joe are listed with no surnames, and of course all had run away.  Run-away wives were also a frequent subject of public notices with warnings not to harbor or help them. During election season, long lists of committee members were published showing who supported each candidate and telling us where these people lived.  Often these contain the names of many of the same businessmen and other worthies who variously ran ads in the paper.  Since the issues we have date from the founding of Union College, for several months after the institution’s founding, a series of witty essays was published lauding or decrying the college, its students and faculty.  All of them of course were published anonymously!

Considering that few other sources for Schenectady give us this kind of information for this time period, the Mohawk Mercury is a treasure trove for researchers.  Until recently, however, accessing this information has been difficult and time-consuming because no complete index existed. A partial index from issues nos. 9–30 was completed some time ago, but considering that the final issue we have was no. 170, very little information was actually accessible.  In the fall of 2012, I completed the index, and it is currently available for use at the Society’s library.  It can also be found online here

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